The Light and Dark of Athens

Athens was a bittersweet day and a half for our tour. We had a wonderful time exploring the many beautiful things in the city — too many to name in one post, truly. The city is magnificent, but with the magnificent comes the harsh realties of heavily tourist filled cities… thieves.

Our first evening in Athens was very lovely in many ways. One of the wonderful things about Europe that I wish we would embrace here in the US is the delicious tradition of gelato. Yes, we can get it at the grocery store, but in Italy, Greece, and even Ireland (which will be the topic of my next series) had gelato nearly at every turn! Without fail, in every city in Italy and Greece, gelato was a part of the day. In Athens we went to a lovely little “gelateria” called DaVinci’s where we got the most delectable gelato of the entire trip… so of course I took a picture of it!

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I had no shame as I enjoyed every last morsel of this gelato, that I thought might be my very last of the trip (I was wrong, but for less than great reasons– you’ll find out about that next week).

After the gelato, Raquel took us to a very scenic look at the Acropolis by night. We walked and we walked and we walked… at Raquel’s lightning pace, by the way, and it was too much for a few of our number. As chaperone, I stayed back with the stragglers, so I didn’t get to see it in all of it’s glory by night, but I did snap a quick (albeit blurry) photo from where I had to stop. And even though I didn’t get to see the “amazing view” – what I saw was beautiful enough!

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And though I felt very safe walking around at night in Athens, the subway was an entirely different beast. We stayed close together and attempted to watch out for each other, but at some point, one of the gentlemen in our group who insisted on keeping his wallet in the cargo pocket of his shorts (despite being told multiple times not to), lost about 300€, but was fortunate enough to keep the vital things, like credit cards, ID, and passport. It was a frustrating experience, yes, but a lesson well learned to listen when Raquel tells you not to do something!

The next morning we took a tour of the city, starting with the cite of the first modern Olympics, the Panathenaic Stadium.

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The Panathenaic Stadium is very impressive, especially when you realize that it has (in some form) existed since the fourth century! Made entirely of marble, it’s amazing that it went largely unused after Christianity rose to power. It wasn’t until the modern Olympic Games came back in the late 1800s that the stadium was excavated and renovated.  Many events happen here even today — a classic marathon takes place every year, and the final hand-off in Greece of the Olympic torch happens here.

Back on the bus we passed many more impressive sites, but I wish we would have been able to get out and walk around a bit more. However, the purpose of the trip was to get a survey of both Italy and Greece in an eight day time frame, which simply does not leave time to walk around Athens for days and days. Photos out the window of a bus don’t come out very clearly, but I did get a relatively nice picture of Hadrian’s Arch. Hadrian is everywhere in Italy and Greece– he was kind of a big deal. Our guide, Raquel told us that the gate was a divider between old and new Athens.

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Then we moved on to the Acropolis, which was breathtakingly historical. SO many things contributed to my love of it, but I simply could not stop thinking about how people from a time so long ago walked where I was walking. I even took a picture of my shoe after walking around in the Acropolis just so I could remember the dust of the Acropolis was on my feet at one time.

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I know it’s a little silly, but I probably sat and looked at that dust for a full minute pondering the mass of humanity who had been there before me.

Pictured below is the gate that you have to walk through to get to the Acropolis.  There is exactly one way in and out, and this was the way it was originally constructed for security purposes. I find that fascinating that they worried about security even back then. Obviously we have different means of hurting people now, they still needed to think about how to make the place safe even way back then.

The most identifiable structure is the Parthenon (pictured below). And it is very beautiful. It was under construction while we were there as they struggle against nature and time to keep the structure a semblance of what it once was.

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However, the portion of the Acropolis that fascinated me the most was the Temple of Athena. The sculptures were so beautiful, and the history of the people of Athens and the myth of Athena is just so interesting to me. There is even an olive tree there that is said to have been planted by Athena for the people of Athens. IMG_8797IMG_8798IMG_8799

Here are some of the views from the Acropolis:

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The ruins of the Temple of Zeus

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Another cite, just outside of the Acropolis, was where it is said that Paul first preached the gospel in Greece. He was atop a large rock, situated so that everyone entering and exiting the Acropolis would have heard him. You could go up on the top of it, but I found it more interesting to stand and look up at the people and imagine what it would have been like to listen to Paul. What did he sound like? Did people listen or dismiss him as a lunatic? I stood there for quite some time and tried to soak it all in.

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Later that night, we were once again reminded of the frustrations of traveling. On our way back to the hotel, one of men in our group was robbed on the subway in a classic trick. Someone pretended to fall just as the subway approached a stop, and has he tried to help her, someone else cut the string on his passport lanyard (that he was wearing under his clothes), and got away with his passport, wallet, and money just as the doors were opening. It created a huge headache that included him having to file a police report that evening and then making a trip to the American Embassy the next morning… which should have been a problem because we were supposed to leave the next day. Alas, due to an airline strike, our flight was canceled, which resulted in relief and anxiety for different reasons.

That evening we spent wondering what would become of us the next day instead of our flight, but we were greatly distracted by a night of Greek food, singing and dancing while Raquel tried to find suitable activities for us to do the following day, which you can read about next week!

 

The Oracle at Delphi

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The Oracle’s view of Delphi

Situated beautifully between the mountains and the ocean, Delphi was once considered the center of the known world by the Ancient Greeks. (Pronounced delf-ee not delf-eye like the town in Indiana) People from all over the world would come here for trade, information, and the wisdom of the Oracle.

Legend has it that Zeus sent two eagles from either end of the world, and where they crossed each other was the center of the earth. That was Delphi, or Δελφοί. Often called “the navel” of the world because of the stone that marked the exact center of what the Greeks knew as the world.

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In ancient times, Delphi was known to be the seat of the Oracle. People would ask the Oracle a question, and after pondering it, she would give an answer that would be interpreted by the priests. The Oracle was always a woman with an “unblemished past.”  She was kept in a crevice where “vapors” would give her wisdom. We now know that the oracle was breathing in hallucinogenic gasses — so basically she was high.

Delphi is also home to the temple of Apollo. It now lies in ruin, like many ancient temples. But even more so, Delphi is located over two tectonic plates (source of future-telling psychedelic happy vapors) and was rebuilt several times before the site was abandoned as having lost its religious significance (largely after the rise of Christianity). People then stopped coming to Delphi.

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It’s built on a hill, of course, and after climbing most (not all) of the stairs, I took this picture of the temple (entrance on the left) and the amazing scenery surrounding it all. Honestly, I do not understand why people left Greece. I supposed, you know… population stuff… but really! Why would you leave this place? It is beautiful!

Here is the view from the opposite direction:

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Pay attention to the people at the bottom of the picture to give reference to the size of the cliffs.

Also, the amphitheater (which is not accessible to the masses for preservation sake)

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The man was painstakingly attempting to keep nature at bay by weeding the amphitheater

And the Athenian Treasury building – the only building that still stands in some semblance of wholeness. But you can see the places that are much newer where there was an attempt to keep it upright.

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This was a beautiful day! The weather was just right – and we enjoyed the outdoors as well as the museum close by with more of the relics and artifacts from the area.

Next week’s blog post will be our first day in Athens!

 

A Surprise Trip to Thermopylae

IMG_8703As I traversed Italy and Greece with my students (with the help of EF Tours), I enjoyed seeing the joy and wonder on the faces of my students as they witnessed the beauty of Europe. It was especially exciting to see the students see something they’d learned about in school. Seeing it makes learning so much more real, I think. And our surprise stop in Thermopylae was exactly that for one young man on our trip.

This young man, Brandon, is obsessed with Leonidas (of the movie 300 fame). Brandon was talking about how he wished he could go see his statue in Thermopylae while we were in Greece, but his GPS told him that it was several days away, and he was intensely defeated.

Leave it to our glorious tour guide, Rochelle.

We were at a gas station getting petrol for the bus. Side note: I had a very delicious cappuccino from an actual cappuccino machine… AT A GAS STATION… for the equivalent of about $1.75. This is one of the many reasons I love Greece.

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Rochelle heard him talking (I think) and casually mentioned over her shoulder that Thermopylae was, in fact, our next stop… and it was only ten minutes away from where we were.  I thought Brandon would start crying… in fact, I’m not a hundred percent positive that he didn’t cry.  Apparently he hadn’t taken his GPS off of the “walking” setting instead of the “driving” setting. Hilarious!

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Brandon’s face when he found out we were going (photo credit Chase Bauer)

Before you know it we were out of the bus at the statue.  In the middle of nowhere is the giant Leonidas towering over the bleak landscape. Rochelle pointed out to us the pass that the three hundred Spartans had defended. Historically there were more than the three hundred Spartans (an additional 5600 soldiers from other city-states), but they were still greatly out numbered by (depending on who you believe) anywhere from 300,000 to 2,000,000 Persian soldiers. When other soldiers fled or surrendered, the Spartans stood firm.

On the statue, which was erected in 1955, is an engraving of the phrase “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” which roughly translates to “Come and take them.” This was apparently Leonidas’ reply to Xerxes’ offer to spare the lives of the Spartans if they would lay down their weapons.

The joy of this trip was truly in seeing how moved the students were by the immensity of the statue and their awe of the tale of supreme sacrifice and bravery against unimaginable odds.

We would all like to believe, I think, that we would be able to show that kind of bravery. Leonidas and the Spartans are the epitome of that bravery. The monument is a tribute to that and also a reminder that we all have bravery within ourselves – the courage to do what is necessary and to show honor and perseverance.

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The whole group – including the folks who joined us from California (photo credit: Chase Bauer)

Igoumenitsa to Meteora – the unknown beauty of Greece

Due, I’m sure, to my lack of attention during Ancient Geography, I had no idea that the northwestern coast of Greece was so shockingly beautiful! The drive from Igoumenitsa to a glorious place called Meteora was beyond any beauty I have ever experienced. For those of you who don’t know me well, that is saying quite a bit. For decades I have sworn that Ireland (here and here and also here) is the most beautiful place on Earth. And in full disclosure, I still have an undeniable pull to Ireland that I cannot explain. However, the beauty of Meteora is completely different than the beauty of Ireland. It’s like comparing apples and chairs… they’re not even both fruit!

Greece was both luscious and rugged. The greens and blues were in such beautiful contrast to each other that I was really unsure of how to process that a place like this existed.

We left Italy on the Saturday of the Catholic Holy Week (the next day would be Easter). We entered Greece on the Greek Orthodox Palm Sunday (the week before the Orthodox Easter). In many ways it was like actually going back in time. A few of the students in our group had wanted to attend church somewhere in Greece for Easter services, but there weren’t any because the Orthodox calendar differs from the Catholic calendar. Who knew! Fortunately the kids weren’t too disappointed since we were headed to a monastery anyway.

We stopped along the drive from Igoumenitsa in Kastraki for a lovely dinner where my friend and I ate lunch on the outdoor patio. The weather was glorious — a little chilly in the shade, but the sun gave the air just enough warmth to make you comfortable.

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Behind us you can see the breathtaking cliffs of Meteora that at the time we didn’t know we were heading toward.

After lunch was over, we piled back into the bus and made our way to Meteora. All I knew was that we were going to see some monasteries that were built on top of mountains. I felt like that would be a fitting place for monks, but little did I know exactly what we would see there.

The Meteora monasteries are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and the closest comparison that I can come to is when my son and I visited the cliff dwellings of ancient Americans in the southwest. But those cliff dwellings were just holes in the sides of mountains. The monasteries of Meteora were phenomenal churches and living quarters that were hoisted up the sides of cliffs bit by bit and constructed on the tops of enormous outcroppings of rock. For years some of the monasteries were only accessible by a pulley system. There is still one of the monasteries that is only accessible through a gondola-style contraption that someone inside the monastery operates!

The monasteries are lived in, but for revenue, many of them allow tourists – even on Palm Sunday. We were required to wear skirts and keep our shoulders covered, and they supplied you with a wrap around piece of fabric to wear over your pants so that you could comply with the dress code.   After climbing up a horrifically primitive looking staircase up the side of the outcropping, we made it to the monastery. I am very afraid of heights, so this was no easy task. Most of the climb up I just focused on the shirt or shoes (depending on the steepness of the climb) of the person in front of me.

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It was truly an amazing experience on top of the world in Meteora, and the view from our hotel that night, was nearly as breathtaking.

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Kalabaka, Greece

I am sure that Greece will get at least one more stamp in my passport so I can come back here and spend a few days rather than a single night. It was a wonderful place filled with beautiful blue skies, amazingly green foliage, and ruggedly impressive mountains. I strongly recommend swinging by this lovely town!

Sometimes Lessons are Learned the Hard Way

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I have learned some really great lessons while traveling – like always keep your passport on your person at all times, locking your luggage with a TSA approved lock doesn’t mean that they will actually take the time to use their tool because cutting it off is easier, and avoid checking your luggage if you can. Those lessons weren’t particularly difficult to learn for me personally, but on the trip to Italy and Greece, I did learn one lesson the hard way.

To fully understand this lesson, I must remind you of my newly found understanding of my aversion to moving in inhuman ways, i.e. flying. If you missed that, feel free to read about it in this blog post.

On this trip with EF Tours, we toured Italy AND Greece. So after our wonderful evening in Pisa, we took a ferry from Ancona, Italy to Igoumenitsa, Greece. We took a bus from Florence to Ancona, which took about 3 1/2 hours. Loading up the ferry took nearly just as long, but it was fun to explore. This was the first time I’d ever taken a ferry of that size. It was basically a small town! The rooms were basically glorified closets, but there were multiple dinning rooms, entertainment areas, gaming rooms (for kids and adults), and countless decks to explore a 365 degree view of the Italian coastline and then nothing but the Adriatic Sea. It was beautiful!

Well.. back to my lesson…

So, I bummed some motion sickness medicine from a student and looked forward to a puke-less trip across the Adriatic Sea. A little bit later, the chaperones met up on the top deck to sit and chat until it was time for dinner. One of the parents had purchased a bottle of wine in Florence and we all sat down to share the bottle– about eight adults drinking one bottle of wine. I had about the equivalent of a Dixie cup’s worth of red wine.

And… you guessed it… about 15 minutes later I was drunker than a skunk, not a sensation I am super familiar with, and definitely not a sensation I enjoyed. I hardly ate any food due to the world spinning and wobbling simultaneously. I went to bed at about 7pm and slept until the next morning.

SO… lesson learned… motion sickness medicine and booze, even in small amounts, DO NOT MIX!

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My last unintoxicated view from the ship

Adventures in Italy and Greece

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In spring of 2018 I went with a group of students to Italy and Greece. We spent 11 days there – only 9 of which were planned (you can read more about that in a future post). And I have to say that the time I spent in Italy and Greece was some of the most surprisingly wonderful time I’ve spent abroad. Though Ireland will always have my soul, Italy and Greece awed me in a way that I never expected.

Consequently, I’m going to do a series of posts in November, and probably December, on my time there. I’m sure I will come back to talking about Ireland again, for those of you who have liked those posts. However, I encourage you to be surprisingly wondered with my posts, even if that isn’t a place you’re particularly interested in.

I’d wanted to visit Italy for several years, but it was honestly a place that I never thought I would actually get to. I feel comfortable traveling on my own in places where I speak the language, but going to Italy seemed unrealistic because the extent of my Italian is basically food related. And though I assume that would come in handy as well, it wasn’t going to be enough to get me where I wanted to go.

Greece was not on my travel radar at all. Though I had heard of the beauty of Greece and the friendliness of the people, I really didn’t think it would be worth the time in the airplane to go there. Also, the Greek language is extremely complicated. Therefore, I never imagined that I would ever see Greece.

The school where I teach (the best school in the state of Indiana, in my humble opinion) has a wonderful history of taking students abroad. For the last twenty-four years, Cascade High School has taken students abroad through EF Tours. Most of the trips have been in Europe, but this summer a group is going to New York City and next spring break one teacher will also be taking a group to Japan.

In 2017 one of the teachers who often is in charge of trips asked me if I would be interested in going on a trip to Italy and Greece with her. Her usual chaperones were not going to be available for the trip, and she wanted to offer a slot to me since she knew that I loved to travel. Despite that chaperones basically get to go for free, I had to really think it over first. I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to travel with students, or with a tour, or be in charge of making sure teenagers survived in a foreign country.

Pros: 

  • Visiting new countries at a very minimal cost
  • EF provided: airline ticket, breakfast, dinner, transportation, hotel rooms, tour guides, translators, entrance fees to museums/attractions
  • The itinerary was planned out and arranged for me – I just needed to wake up and follow the guide (which wasn’t always easy)
  • The ability to see countries I didn’t think I would ever see
  • There were several parents/aunts/uncles going, so my chaperone requirements were going to be minimal

Cons: 

  • Being in charge of teenagers during a school break
  • The inability to go where I wanted, when I wanted

That last con was a big one for me. I’d just taken the trip to Ireland and had that freedom to come and go and do whatever I wanted because I didn’t have to accommodate for anyone.  However, the pros greatly outweighed the cons, and I decided to make the trip. And to be honest, when I got there I really didn’t mind that as much as I thought I would.

In next week’s blog post, I will talk about our first day in Italy — ROME!